When Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Nigerian parents ‘farmed’ him out to foster parents in Essex they thought they were sending him off to a better life – he ended up becoming a skinhead and a member of the gang who had previously tormented him.
The actor, of Lost and Game of Thrones fame, has turned his hand to directing to share his “own truth” in new movie, Farming, which tells the story of how a young Nigerian boy was raised by white foster parents in the 70s in Tilbury, Essex. Picked on and racially bullied, he adapted and created his own identity by joining the very racist skinhead group that made his life hell.
The coming-of-age film brings a little known part of British history to the big screen: Farming, where thousands of Nigerian children just like Akinnuoye-Agbaje were ‘farmed out’ to families in Britain.
Speaking to RadioTimes.com, Akinnuoye-Agbaje admits it was hard reliving the trauma of his youth.
“I recall stepping on set. The production designer re-created the house I had grown up in and I wasn’t prepared. I had to take a moment to myself,” he says. “I had to explain just what it meant to me. It was a time where I just couldn’t see a way out, but I didn’t have the luxury of languishing, I had to direct. It was only later when I processed that emotion.”
The film follows Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s life story closely. His parents were both of a generation that traveled to Britain in search of an education. The idea was to attend university and then head home to help their country, which at the time was plagued by civil war.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s father studied law, his mother accountancy. Not long after he was born they placed an advert in the newspaper in a bid to find him a temporary home while they studied. In the film, a young Akinnuoye-Agbaje is handed over with a wad of cash, the first monthly payment, to a family in east London.
What is Farming?
Today, the practice sounds unbelievable, but it was a reality in the 60s and 70s.
“It’s why I wanted to tell the story,” says Akinnuoye-Agbaje. “It’s such a little known part of British history, but it’s such an important part of our racial history in this country.”
In Africa, it was actually common place to send children away to families living in towns or more affluent areas from their villages to give them a better life.
“The issue was this was another country,” he adds. “I had so many feelings about what they did. It was something I had to come to terms with. Making the film, playing my father, helped me understand it more. They wanted to get us an education, to speak English, they thought we were better off.”
The problems soon began when more Nigerian couples came to Britain hoping to leave their children in British homes. The practice was informal, under-the-radar and unmonitored at first. There was no way of knowing how many children were being farmed, where they were living and if they were being cared for properly.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje says he thinks it was a practice more widespread than even the film gets across, with more than half of Nigerian British children experiencing a few years ‘farmed out’.
The film shows how social services began to run checks and visit foster families, to ensure children were being cared for, but to also try and reign in the practice.
While the film focuses on the 70s, the practiced continued – on a smaller scale – right up to the millennium, according to the director.
How many children were fostered?
Akinnuoye-Agbaje was one of 10 children taken in by his foster parents. He was mostly raised by his foster mother Ingrid Carpenter (Kate Beckinsale), while his foster father was away driving lorries for a living. When Ingrid took in the vast brood, including his two sisters, they were the only black children in Tilbury, an area where far-right groups were fast-growing.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje recalls how his foster mother would tell them they were no different, but would still use racial slurs. “It’s what’s so strange,” he says. “It’s not clear cut. My parents would use the same slurs, and you’d see and hear the same things on television.
“This was a time that [on TV] there was Love Thy Neighbour and comedians joking about this, these were the racial epitaphs on prime time TV.
“It’s not an excuse, but it was just the background to all of this. It doesn’t excuse it, but these were low income, broken families, largely illiterate. This is what they watched, it’s what they knew.”
For Akinnuoye-Agbaje a key part of him making the film was letting the audience decide how they feel about Farming for themselves.
“It was important not to have judgement and let the audience do that,” he adds. “I had to see my father, my foster parents as complex, it wasn’t black or white. The truth of what happened here was prudent to the time.”
His foster parents’ initial intent in taking him in was unselfish – Ingrid couldn’t have children of her own – but it soon became clear there was monetary gain. The number of foster families predictably grew in number faced with such an incentive.
How accurate is Farming?
In the film, Ingrid makes Akinnuoye-Agbaje shoplift, which was something that really happened. “I used to have dogs set on me,” he said.
His foster father also sends the young boy out to face the skinheads in the film, which was also real. “You had to fight,” he adds.
Eventually Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s parents, who he barely knew, returned to take him home to Africa. Aged eight or nine-years-old he was yanked from Tilbury to a Nigerian village.
In the film, he stops speaking and, in real life, he was actually struck mute by the drastic move. His parents, unable to get him to talk, shipped him back to his foster parents, but he returned to an even bigger identity crisis. Just as he does in the film, he scrubbed his face to try and make it white. But Akinnuoye-Agbaje quickly realised his methods were not enough to fit in and he turned to the very gang that tormented him.
Aged just 16, he was expelled and roamed the streets with the Skinheads. At first, they used him as a toy, then a weapon, then they showed him a grudging level of respect as he made himself tougher.
Most of the incidents in the film are grounded in Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s reality, others are taken from things he’s heard or experienced. From the fights, the fatal attacks, crime, and racial slurs. One moment is completely true to his experience – when he tries to take his own life.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje had to walk the young actor, Damson Idris, playing him through the moment. “I had to explain what suicide meant to a young adolescent in a cultural identity crisis in the 70s,” he says. “It didn’t represent death. It represented freedom. It was the only way to stop the hurt and pain. That’s why you see the image of the rainbow before the act.”
While Akinnuoye-Agbaje knew Idris had the maturity and strength to act it out, he didn’t want him to have to go through it too many times.
“He did it in two takes,” he adds. “I had to act through it with him, it was an emotional day.”
Is the teacher in Farming based on a real person?
The teacher who reaches out to him in the film is actually a mix of people who helped him see there was a way out.
“The truth is, personally I couldn’t make the transition in my life. It was an amalgamation of my teacher, a social worker, a fellow student. I had to see intelligence as a better way. They started me on the academic route so I could articulate what I felt in another arena.”
His foster mother reached out to his birth parents at first, sharing her worries. His father, now a lawyer, packed Akinnuoye-Agbaje off to a boarding school in Surrey. It was there that, with coaxing, he turned to education as his way out.
How did he turn his life around?
“The key was the first exam I passed,” he says. “I had to retake my O Levels, I think I got a C, but I applied myself.
“You have to understand before that I thought I was useless – then the exam was the breakthrough. I hadn’t realised it before, I wasn’t aware, now I knew I just had to apply the same formula in my life.”
Akinnuoye-Agbaje went from a skinhead to earning his bachelor’s then master’s degree in Law. At college he was spotted and asked to model and after he moved to Los Angeles, the acting offers began to come in, from Congo (1995) to Lost and Game of Thrones.
Now years after experiencing Farming first hand, Akinnuoye-Agbaje has moved from acting to directing to bring his own story to life.
“It felt important to me. In my mind, I was being truthful to my journey. I had to paint a searing picture that parallels the world.”
What happened to his parents?
While he’s now more in touch with his Nigerian heritage, Akinnuoye-Agbaje says resolving his feelings in regards to his birth family proved difficult. He’s never discussed what happened with them until this day.
“There’s quite a bit of denial,” he says. “With my foster parents, it’s complex. They took these 10 Nigerian children in, which is extraordinary. They were singled out for doing it, but they still did it.”
In later life, his relationship with his foster parents, who are both now dead, did improve. The couple knew he was writing a film about his life and told him to just “tell the truth”.
While the aftermath of his childhood should give us hope, for Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the film isn’t about that.
“Nothing much changes, whether that’s the relationship to the wider population or tolerance. Nothing will until there’s acceptance – there are always ripples of discontent,” he says.
“Just look at Windrush two years ago – nothing changed. The right attitude needs to come from the Government and filter down to the streets.
“The skinheads felt powerless. They thought we were a threat. We see it today with Brexit, Farage and Trump. Even in France. It’s not getting better getting worse.”
Farming is in cinemas from 11th October